Are Belly-Putters the Next Big Game-Changers?

Eleven years ago, Paul Azinger became the first player to ride a belly putter to a victory on the PGA Tour–by 7-strokes at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Keegan Bradley made history three weeks ago winning the first major title using a belly-style putter when he captured the 93rd PGA Championship played at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Earlier, Adam Scott won the World Golf Championship at Firestone and after Bradley, Webb Simpson just made it two wins in less than a month with titles at Greensboro and TPC Boston with the long-shafted putter.

As a result, interest in trying the belly-putter is taking off, and now it is going to get even more feverish as two of the PGA’s best putters, both World Golf Hall of Fame nominees, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk have gone “belly-up.” Surely, more pros and amateurs will try these extended flat-sticks trying to improve their putting statistics.

Long considered “ugly” and even “unsporting” the belly-putter just got two huge endorsements and moved up the ladder of credibility, if only temporarily. In the past, turning to the belly-putter was considered an act of desperation, a last-ditch effort to overcome a career-ending case of the “yips.” Not anymore. It is now simply a sensible move made by still solid players just trying to improve their putting. Still, traditionalists like Jones, Hogan, and Nelson are probably turning in their graves.

Phil has started exhibiting early signs of the yips, 3-putting from 4-feet and otherwise missing short putts that used to be slam-dunks for him. In his first real test of the belly-blade in the BMW Championship he putted well and posted 63-69 using it. It remains in his bag for this week’s event and Phil’s using it will only add to its credibility and popularity. Ditto for Jim Furyk’s putting one in his bag as well.

Brad Faxon says the emerging presence of the belly-putter is like the 2-handed backhand in tennis. At first no one was doing it; then a few started; and before you knew it almost everyone was…”it (became the tried and true) way to go.” Faxon thinks young kids will use them right from the start and if Tiger ever turns to the belly-putter, look out!

At the 2010 Barclays there were six players using belly putters; this year there were 20, including Simpson, the winner at TPC Boston. That’s a big jump.

And for Jim Fury (along with Phil) to hop on the band-wagon…that’s huge! Furyk said he got tips from Bradley, before the latter won the PGA, and Furyk already believes his recent improved scores and chance of making the Tour Championship are a direct result of confidence gained from using the belly-putter.

But the belly-blade is not without its critics. Many of my friends believe it should be banned and that players who use it shouldn’t be on the Tour. They say: it’s OK for amateurs, but if pros can’t putt with a traditional putter, they don’t belong on the Tour…regardless of who it is, you’re no longer a pro. I think that’s rather harsh and a bit extreme, but in a way I see their point. We hold pros to a higher standard of play.

When Slammin’ Sammy went croquet style for a while, he was so good at it, the USGA and PGA banned it saying it was a “distinct advantage” (even though anyone could have done it) and contrary to the existing rules. He went side-saddle after that but it wasn’t the same.

Could the belly-putter create a technology paradigm shift in golf? I find that hard to accept, at least until certain pros using belly-putters make huge improvements in their putting stats. That’s why watching guys like Mickelson and Furyk will be interesting.

Most pros don’t think the USGA or PGA will try to ban the belly-putter, especially since it is now getting even more established. Plus there’s no real evidence yet that they make a difference; successes are few and still anecdotal. But one must wonder about the evolving trend.

Azinger said the belly-putter “wasn’t fool-proof” and it took him a lot of work to get used to it. But he also added that it helped him get back into the TOP-20 again and make both the President’s Cup and Ryder Cup when earlier, he was sure he wouldn’t. [Hum, maybe that’s what Fred has up his sleeve with Tiger.]

Interestingly, none of the guys in the PGA’s TOP-10 or TOP-20 for either major putting stat-strokes gained or putts per GIR-uses a belly-putter. Steve Stricker and Aaron Baddeley, both outstanding putters, were asked if they would switch and both said “No!”…we like what we’re doing. Padraig Harrington, over-hearing that conversation, said “If Stricker ever goes to a belly-putter we’re all in trouble.” So just what does Harrington know?

Baddeley had the best line, however, saying “pigs will fly if Tiger or Brad Faxon ever switches to the bellies.”

Well warm up the pans and start frying some bacon because Faxon is toying with one and who knows about Tiger? Tiger with a belly-putter just might be captain Couples’ secret weapon in the President’s Cup. What a “sizzle” that would cause!

©2011, FMK

Frank M. Krakowski, MD

Frank Golf Thoughts™

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